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We need contingencies to mitigate the delay to Brexit negotiations as a result of COVID-19

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has threatened to walk away from the negotiations if, by June, there isn’t sufficient progress for a September agreement, writes Baroness Hayter.

3 min read

This pandemic risks major disruption to Brexit negotiations. MPs need to understand any differences this stalling will make

Just when you thought the economy couldn’t have a bigger shock than Brexit (with the possibility of a no-deal at the end of this year), along comes a major pandemic risking greater disruption than last century’s financial crisis.  
The government has been juggling negotiations with the United States alongside those with the European Union – and travel to both is in doubt. In the case of the US, President Trump has closed the airports to Brits. In the case of the EU, this week’s second round of talks, due in London, have been cancelled – although they might yet continue by video conference.
Given the complexity of the talks, with myriad subjects handled by different groups of officials who need near constant updates from each other, it is hard to imagine how Skype will fit the bill. 

Aside from re-scheduling the talks, there is the very real need for business to prepare for whatever outcome. Industry was already warning that help is needed for firms to prepare for life outside the EU. The Institute of Directors, noting the heavy costs of adjustment, regretted the absence of any such aid in the Budget.
In fact, Brexit was barely mentioned by the new Chancellor, leading the British Chambers of Commerce to demand more support for businesses as they navigate changes to trading arrangements. The longer the talks take, the less time business has to line up the paperwork, tariff adjustments, transport and data exchange – let alone respond to currency fluctuations.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has threatened to walk away from the negotiations if, by June, there isn’t sufficient progress for a September agreement. But with the talks halted, and other pressing priorities – both here and within the EU – it is hard to believe an outline treaty would be negotiated by then. And the possible appearance of a first draft this week and the EU’s 441 page Draft Agreement on the New Partnership that was helpfully leaked at the weekend would make little difference.
We are not talking about a few containable issues, nor of minor disagreements to be negotiated away. Detailed comparison of the UK and EU’s opening gambits by the Lords EU Committee underlined the extent to which the two sides have diverged since Mr Johnson signed the Political Declaration back in October.
On Tuesday I will ask Cabinet Office Minister Lord True if contingencies are in place given the delay to the negotiations because of the COVID-19 crisis. One frustration of how our government is talking to Brussels is that it’s a Civil Servant, not a Minister, leading the UK delegation – and that individual is not answerable to Parliament. Just when MPs need to understand any differences that this stalling will make, the Chief Negotiator is nowhere to be seen. 


Baroness Hayter is a Labour Life Peer and the Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords. 

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